Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management | Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016)

Many who cite #KurtLewin haven’t read the original 1947/1951 writings, say @strategybuild @ToddBridgman @kgbphd with the “refreezing” part of “unfreezing → changing → refreezing” emerging in a subsequent career of an idea that can be traced genealogically and archaeologically.

Kurt Lewin is widely considered the founding father of change management, with his unfreeze–change–refreeze or ‘changing as three steps’ (CATS) (see Figure 1 …) regarded as the ‘fundamental’ or ‘classic’ approach to, or classic ‘paradigm’ for, managing change ….

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 34
Figure 1. Change as three steps
Figure 1. Change as three steps.

CATS has come to be regarded both as an objective self-evident truth and an idea with a noble provenance.

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 34

The authors suggest going back to reread the original Lewin 1947 paper, to remove some of the distortions introduced with multiple reinterpretations.

By going back and looking at what Lewin wrote (particularly the most commonly cited reference for CATS, ‘Lewin, 1947’: the first article ever published in Human Relations published just weeks after Lewin’s death), we see that what we know of CATS today is largely a post hoc reconstruction. Our forensic examination of the past is not, however, an end in itself. Rather, it encourages us to think differently about the future of change management that we can collectively create. In that spirit, we conclude by offering two alternative future directions for teaching and researching change in organization inspired by returning to ‘Lewin, 1947’ and reading it anew.

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 35

Lewin (1947) does have a subheading as “Changing as Three Steps: Unfreezing, Moving, and Freezing of Group Standards”, but doesn’t use the term “refreezing”.

Lewin never wrote ‘refreezing’ anywhere. As far as we can ascertain, the re-phrasing of Lewin’s freezing to ‘refreezing’ happened first in a 1950 conference paper by Lewin’s former student Leon Festinger (Festinger and Coyle, 1950; reprinted in Festinger, 1980: 14). Festinger said that: ‘To Lewin, life was not static; it was changing, dynamic, fluid. Lewin’s unfreezing-stabilizing-refreezing concept of change continues to be highly relevant today’. It is worth noting that Festinger’s first sentence seems to contradict the second, or at least to contradict later interpretations of Lewin as the developer of a model that deals in static, or at least clearly delineated, steps. Furthermore, Festinger misrepresents other elements; Lewin’s ‘moving’ is transposed into ‘stabilizing’, which shows how open to interpretation Lewin’s nascent thinking was in this ‘preparadigmatic’ period (Becher and Trowler, 2001: 33).

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 37

The “Change as Three Steps” idea can be traced backwards (genealogically) before 1980, and then moving forward (archaeologically) after 1980.

Prior to the early 1980s, Lewin’s CATS was largely unseen; by the end of the 1980s, despite the fact that its form was anomalous to what Lewin actually wrote or likely intended for the idea, it was the basis of our understanding of a fast growing field: change management.

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 41
Figure 2. CATS as a grand foundation
Figure 2. CATS as a grand foundation

Kurt Lewin passed away at age 56 in 1947, with a heart attack. The 1947 paper is titled “Frontiers in Group Dynamics”. Where might he have continued research, if the untimely interruption had not occurred?

Lewin outlines many frontiers in the 1947 paper from which CATS is developed, but the two to which he devotes the most space, and which interconnect to most of the other frontiers he wrote about, are the first and the last in the article. The first is that when studying change the unit of analysis must be the group, not the individual (as psychology might direct us), the organization (as modern management studies is want to think) or wider society (as may be the want of the sociologist). The last is a call for advances in mathematics and statistics, advances that would enable multiple variables relating to individuals and groups to be analysed as a system, so as to enable the other frontiers he has outlined to be reached. Seeing these two aims as foundations for the future could, we believe, have profound effects on research and teaching now.

Cummings, Bridgman, Brown (2016), p. 51


Cummings, Stephen, Todd Bridgman, and Kenneth G Brown. 2016. “Unfreezing Change as Three Steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s Legacy for Change Management.” Human Relations 69 (1): 33–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715577707. Alternate search at https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=9697411470697319629

Lewin, Kurt. 1947. “Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change.” Human Relations 1 (1): 5–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872674700100103. Alternate search at https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=5294512717494967898.

“Unfreezing change as three steps” | Sage | March 10, 2016 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJfdmT1UtBY

#change, #change-management, #kurt-lewin, #organizational-change